Ten Years of Terror

Book review by Thomas M. Sipos

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Ten Years of Terror: British Horror Films of the 1970s, edited by Harvey Fenton & David Flint (Fab Press, 2001, 336 pp.)

 

 

 

When people think of British horror films, thoughts turn to Hammer (with a nod to Amicus). But now for something completely different: A book about INDEPENDENT British horror cinema, 1970 -- 1979.  Ten years, ten chapters.

Why those years? The editors explain: "When people talk of the long tradition of British horror cinema, they're talking about a myth. In fact, British horror films only thrived for a twenty year period. Before 1960, there had only been a handful of genre movies made in the UK; and since 1980, horror film production has dwindled to an almost non-existent level."

But if British horror began flowering in 1960, why not Twenty Years of Terror? Because, the editors believe, British horror cinema peaked in the 1970s, both creatively and quantitatively: "The 1970s saw boundaries broken down, taboos challenged, censorship under assault and the rule books torn up. It had never happened before, and it hasn't happened since."

While the editors acknowledge Hammer's past contributions, they believe that by the 1970s, independent filmmakers had assumed the creative cutting edge:

"Hammer -- particularly under the leadership of Michael Carreras -- seemed to have little idea of how to deal with the sweeping changes that were taking place. It's sobering to think that while William Friedkin was shooting The Exorcist and Wes Craven had made The Last House on the Left, Hammer were dusting off Terence Fisher to grind out another Frankenstein movie."

Ten Years of Terror is part film encyclopedia, with production credits and analyses for each film entry. Its huge format resembles the Overlook Film Encyclopedia, yet naturally, its coverage of 1970s British horror is more extensive. Vastly so. The Overlook's horror edition covers all North American and European horror films up till 1992, plus films from Japan, India and Latin America, yet is only 1/3 longer than Ten Years of Terror. Ten Years of Terror lavishes over 300 pages for films that the Overlook covers in under 30.

Likewise, Fragments of Fear: An Illustrated History of British Horror Films, covers nearly a century of British horror in 283 pages, compared to Ten Years of Terror's decade in 336 pages.

Clearly, Ten Years of Terror offers much more on 1970s British horror films than previous books. But what more is there? No, not padding. There's meat -- and blood and guts and gore. This is a beautiful book, hugely glossy, lavishly illustrated, in resplendent color.

Specifically: 143 film entries, 733 illustrations, 48 pages in full color. That's what it claims. I didn't count, but it doesn't appear off base.

In addition to ten chapters, there are appendixes for: (1) short and experimental films; (2) TV movies and series (for BBC and ITV buffs); (3) borderline cases (what didn't quite fit the editors' definition of 1970s British horror); (4) foreign films shot in Britain (including by us Yanks), and (5) unfilmed British horror movies (some films that were announced but not completed). Appendixes also illustrated, although the entries are briefer.

 

 

Ten Years of Terror should not be confused with all those other oversized horror film books, scant on text, heavy on the same old glossy stills. Like them, Ten Years of Terror is big and beautiful, oversized and lavishly illustrated. But it's thick with text. And its stills are rarities, obscure gems.

But wait -- there's more!

The Foreword was written by Norman J. Warren, director of such British gems as Horror Planet (aka Inseminoid) and Terror.

I first saw Terror in a New York theater, some 20 years ago. Terror soon sank into obscurity, forgotten and ignored, and I've been partisaning its revival ever since. I discussed Terror in my NYU film school paper on horror films (1982), and in Horror magazine (1997), and for Horrorfind, and in my anthology book Halloween Candy (2001), and in the Hollywood Investigator (2004). Happily, Ten Year of Terror grants proper coverage to Terror (Fragments of Fear doesn't even mention the film), generously illustrated.

I also disagree with part of Harvey Fenton's critique. He calls Terror's script "well-written" and adds: "Terror is an audacious achievement; objectively speaking, there are undoubtedly better movies covered in this book, but few can compete with this film for simple entertainment value.  McGillivray's script is efficient and unobtrusive; its sole purpose is to string together the many delightfully exuberant set-pieces."

Terror is wonderfully enjoyable, and stringing together scenes does appear to be the script's sole purpose. But a script should also create a coherent story, with cause-and-effect plotting. Instead, Terror is one of those rare films that becomes less coherent upon repeated viewing. However, that's because one enjoys Terror so much, one fails to notice that its story makes no sense -- none at all. It's only after one sees Terror a few times, growing familiar with the twists and turns in the rollercoaster, that one sees the plot holes.

Norman J. Warren's later Horror Planet (aka Inseminoid) is also great fun. A slasher film on a harsh planet. Think Jason meets Alien. Although Ten Years of Terror concentrates on British indie horror, it covers all British horror films of the 1970s, Hammer and Amicus included. If the reader is still in doubt as to the fecundity of that period, perhaps it will help to recall these films, all covered in the book:

Countess Dracula, The House That Dripped Blood, Scream and Scream Again, The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, A Clockwork Orange, The Devils, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Hands of the Ripper, Straw Dogs, Twins of Evil, Asylum, Captain Kronos--Vampire Hunter, The Creeping Flesh, Dracula AD 1972, FrenzyHorror Express, Psychomania, Tales from the Crypt, Horror Hospital, Theatre of Blood, The Wicker Man, Craze, House of Whipcord, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Vampyres, The Omen, Satan's Slave, Holocaust 2000, Schizo, The Uncanny, The Legacy, Alien, Saturn 3.

And over 100 more. Only a few entries are non-horror (e.g. Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs).  And mere inclusion does not mean the editors love the film. They disdain The Uncanny -- a film I much enjoy (I've a soft spot for horror anthologies, and for Donald Pleasance, and for Samantha Eggar).

Speaking of which, the trade paperback cover of Ten Years of Terror features the skull from Amicus's Tales from the Crypt. Enthralled by its TV commercials, I spent years waiting to be old enough to see it. For those who came of age post-DC, pre-HBO, the Amicus version will always be the "true" Tales from the Crypt. (Curiously, the hardback's dust jacket features Ingrid Pitt instead).

Ten Years of Terror is a treasure trove, and I'm sure many horror fans will spend hours drooling over the book, recalling films they'd perhaps momentarily forgotten.  Others will thrill with the first blush of discovering a rare gem.

Ten Years of Terror is destined to be the definitive text of independent 1970s British horror cinema.

Review copyright by Thomas M. Sipos

 

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